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Austin Lawyers Offer Pro-bono Services to Black Lives Matter Protesters

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Austin women are supporting the Black Lives Matter movement through their own form of advocacy: their law degrees.

By Trinady Joslin, Photo of Tycha Kimbrough by Romina Olson, Other pictures courtesy of respective subjects

At 6 years old, Tycha Kimbrough began learning the value of advocacy and the importance of raising her voice for her community.

She remembers marching down the streets leading to the Austin Capitol with her grandmother, a civil rights activist who participated in the Selma march.

Almost 20 years later, Kimbrough says the nation is still grappling with the same racial injustices she and her grandmother protested against.

In law school, Kimbrough completed more than 250 hours of pro-bono work. Now, at 26, she’s the founding attorney of Kimbrough Legal and, alongside other Austin lawyers, she’s offering to represent protesters pro-bono to serve the community.

Kimbrough says she received more than 180 calls in one week and has already started working several cases. Callers ranged from concerned family members and protesters confused about their rights to people “brutalized by the police.” 

Rachel Rogers, a criminal defense lawyer who has a history of providing pro-bono legal services to protesters, says people often ask what charges they might face.

“The more access to information people have, the more they feel like they know where to go,” she says. “They’re not just completely scared, they’ve got the information to where they can…feel more empowered to make decisions moving forward.” 

Obstructing a highway, criminal trespassing and riot participation are the most common charges. All three are class B misdemeanors and can result in 180 days in jail and up to a $2,000 fine.

“Those are offenses where the allegation of the crime is that you’re in space where the police say you’re not authorized to be,” Rogers says.

An experienced law firm could charge up to $5,000 for a class B misdemeanor, says Mary Ann Espiritu, a criminal defense lawyer offering pro-bono services to protesters.  

Protesters could also be charged for other crimes such as vandalism, or have multiple charges, potentially driving the bill that much higher. Because of the pandemic, criminal defense attorney Erin Shinn says prosecuting protesters’ cases could take twice as long.

During the first weekend of protests in Austin in early June, nearly 30 protest-related arrests were made in 24 hours according to KXAN

Shinn says she’s received calls from protesters and has one case from a protester so far. While she’s represented protesters pro-bono previously, she didn’t initially intend to offer her services for the Austin protesters. 

“I had a personal friend who was going out. She’s about college age. First, I just gave her my cell and said, ‘Pass this along to your friends.’ And then I didn’t realize [the] really kind of the strong need for it,” Shinn says. “She texted me during the protests and said, ‘Are you okay if I disseminate this to a list for more people?’ I really didn’t even hesitate.”

Now, Shinn is receiving calls through her cell phone, rather than her office phone, which she says keeps her on her toes. 

She and other lawyers say they feel this is the best way they can help support the Black Lives Matter movement and use their skills for others.

“You young people go out and protest and give a voice to the people whose voices haven’t been listened to,” Espiritu says. “And if you get into any trouble, I will help you.”

Kimbrough says she recently had her first child, which spurred her on to be even more proactive in her advocacy.

“My grandmother [protested] so I could have a better future, but we’re still facing the same injustices in 2020 and that shouldn’t be the case,” Kimbrough says. “I don’t want my five-month-old to experience what we’re facing in 2020 when she turns 25 or 26. So I need to be out there doing my part to help the community, to help implement change.”

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